The Beef Cattle Chain
The cattle industry in the United States today is made up of a diverse group of
business men and women, with many who have been in the business for generations upon generations, others who have
realized the potential for profit and have decided to take a chance.
For smaller ranchers, it is important to understand this chain and
determine what, if any, role you would like to play in a particular group at the start of the chain.
These groups handle a variety of cattle duties, but the cow just
doesn’t go from the ranch to the dinner plate, it travels through an extensive network, divided by tasks. The
industry has adapted to meet the needs of consumers, and technological advances also have had an affect. Mass
production has been spurred by advances in nutrition and science, and, of course, changing consumer trends continue
to dictate what types of products and services the industry will offer.
From large feedlots to small ranches, the basic principles of good cattle ranching and
herd management have not changed much for decades. There is a diverse blend of occupancies within the industry.
Here are the main groups that make up the entire chain within the beef industry; from
the pasture to the processor, the rancher to the restaurant.
These cattle producers are building the cattle of the future. Seedstock producers, also
known as purebreds, are forming the genetic building blocks used for breeding stock marketed to the cow/calf
segment. Only a small portion of U.S. breeds are used to build genetics. This segment of the industry is driven
partly by consumer trends, and will establish new genetic changes based on what consumers are looking for in their
This group is comprised of the commercial ranchers who produce the bulk of cattle that
will ultimately be fed for harvest. This group sells weaned calves (usually 6-10 months old and weighing 300-600
lbs.) to stocker operators or feedlots.
This group buys weaned calves, and then grazes them until they weigh as much as 900 lbs.
Once they reach that weight, they then market them to a feedlot.
Feedlots purchase weaned calves from the cow/calf group or cattle from the stocker
segment, finishing them to harvest weights of 900-1,400 lbs.
Packers take the finished cattle from feedlots; tend the beef carcasses (typically 600-800
lbs) into boxes of “sub primal” cuts, such as the top round, tenderloin or sirloin. This then is sold to
This portion of the chain makes boxes of sub primal cuts, marketing primarily to the
hotel, restaurant and institution (HRI) trade, which has no production capabilities. Grocery store are increasingly
purchasing from this group based on consumer trends.
Retailers and Foodservice Operators
This group purchases product from purveyors, processors or packers, then sells directly to
Even with such a wide variety of groups and tasks within the beef industry, there is still
one segment of this population that essentially dictates industry changes:
Consumer demands have changed over time, and they
will no doubt change again. Retailers provide the “eyes-on-the-ground” link, and have the most contact with the
consumer. This allows them to closely follow the latest trends, and then report these trends to each link in the
Body Condition Score